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Discussion Point XI

Is there an afterlife or is death the end?

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57 comments to Discussion Point XI

  • M. Murcek

    The commonality among philosophies that hold there is “something after” is that it is trancendent, so there would be no comparing it to “life as we know it.”

  • Jonathan Thurgood

    There is a ‘weight of glory’ for those who have repented of their sin and accepted Christ.

    For those who have not…well, you have been warned…

  • Nobody knows.

    That’s a fact.

    The whole question is utterly silly.

    That’s my opinion.

  • I do not know (and neither does anyone else because it is un-knowable)… and moreover I don’t actually care.

  • Tanuki

    If there _is_ an afterlife, and the entry-criteria are anything like those stated by the popular religions, then I’m going to have one hell of a lot of explaining to do.

  • blank

    On balance you may as well believe in life after death as not believe in it. Best to err on the side of a vague possibility, just in case it turns out that we might be in a position to say, “oooo-er”.

    But whatever view you take I expect we’ll all find out one day, so it’s only a question of how much speculation you want to put in beforehand.

  • I quite disagree, Tanuki.

    If there is an afterlife and a god, then he’s going to be the one with explaining to do.

    Me: “Look; you’re the one who made me what I am. What the fucking fuck did you expect?”

  • Steevo

    Maybe it should be asked: Do we believe in the Personal instead of impersonal as to why there is our reality? If Personal then it is reasonable to assume there must be purpose, for us. If so then its reasonable to assume accountability. If so it is ‘still’ reasonable to assume it can take place after this brief vapor of physical existance.

  • Ham

    So, blank, do you pray to every single god, just to be safe? 😉

    Without any confirmation either way, but also without any evidence for the affirmative, I would default at ‘no.’ Just a guess, though.

  • Gib

    Death is the end.

    Nobody “knows” 100% for certain, true.
    But all the evidence we have points to death being the end, and it is the most likely by far.

    You don’t know that I’m really human. I could be a mattress creature from another planet. Saying you can’t know, and so you won’t have an opinion on the subject would be a bit silly though….

    And it isn’t necessarily “unknowable”. If there really were life after death, then there might very well be ways to prove it, such as talking to the dead, ghosts, reincarnation. If any of those things could be proved, then life after death would be too.

    It’s only unknowable if there really is no life after death, or alternatively, if there is, but the universe is made in a way which hides the fact.

  • Julian Taylor

    Is this related to the atheism thing in Guy’s earlier post? If so I expect to see the comment about what God says to the atheist upon death … something along the lines of “bet you’re bloody surprised to be here now, eh?”

    As for Mr Thurgood’s comment, perhaps you should join forces with Al Queda or the Taliban- they do seem to have a remarkably similar rhetoric to yours.

  • Kevin B

    If death is the end then it’s a bloody awful waste.

    I mean there’s this whole Universe thing going on, and you’re trying to tell me that when I die it just bloody stops?

    I don’t think so!

  • Midwesterner

    I wonder how many earthly ticket sellers to an afterlife in heaven would be horrified if they found it to really exist.

  • Drew

    The idea of life after death of the body is surely the most damning indictment of the philosophy that promulgates it; what would be the purpose of consciousness without living, without an end to put it towards? It sounds like a horrible, meaningless and overhwelmingly, inescapably boring punishment. Were magical thinking not the mode, the afterlife would be nothing more than a nightmare.

    Either way, an attempt at a definitive answer to the question would be an assertion of the arbitrary and not rationally probative.

  • Ham

    Other than in the immediate aftermath of the death of a close friend (the situation of which the idea of ‘heaven’ is surely the progeny), is there any benefit to believing in an afterlife, especially if it is one that demands things of us in this life too?

  • Pa Annoyed

    Oh, yes. I can just imagine the scene now…

    Atheist: “Why have you got a piece of liver strapped to your chest?”

  • veryretired

    My late step-father was a very devout man, a member of the Lutheran church, and very active in the church community.

    He and my mother had worked together for several years when his wife became ill and died. After one year, he began to ask my mother out to dinner or the movies. A few months later, she had him over to our house for dinner and he asked my permission(!) to court my mother.

    They were married several months later. I was priviledged to be a close observer of one of the most passionate and devoted love stories I have ever known, between a short, argumentative, perfectionist middle aged man, and a middle aged woman with glasses and a WW2 hairdo.

    When I later watched Zhivago, he and Lara were deja vu, in a very odd sort of way.

    He died in our arms twelve years later, after my mother whispered in his ear that it was OK to stop fighting and let go.

    That was over 25 years ago.

    He lives on in her memory, as well as mine, and in the little stories I have shared with my own kids, stories of a funny, loving, generous guy who befriended a teenager late in life, and helped out where and whenever he could. I’m sure his daughter from his first marriage also carries on some of these same recollections.

    I have four children, and I would hope that someday, when I’m long gone, they will be sitting around talking and start to laugh and tell stories about some of the goofy things that Dad used to do or say.

    Souls, I don’t really know. Genes live on, so we’re told.

    But immortality? That’s the memories of those loved and loving, memories that never fade away, values and moments that live on beyond our feeble flesh, stories that are told around the dinner table, or at Christmas time, or in some fishing boat years from now, when a grandchild or greatgrandchild is told of the time I dumped everybody in the lake…

    That’s enough afterlife for me.

  • Tedd McHenry

    I suspect we’re each inclined to believe one way or the other, or to want one answer or the other to be the truth, regardless of whatever argument or rationalization we put forth. So I’ve long been interested in the meta-question, “What do you think it is about you, personally, that inclines you toward one belief or the other?”

    I’ve believed that biological death is also the end of whatever “I” am — consciousness, self, or whatever — from quite a young age. Unlike many of my other beliefs, that one hasn’t changed much as I’ve matured and become more knowledgable and — I hope — wiser. Since I see little rational reason for chosing one belief over the other, that suggests to me that there’s something quite fundamental in my personality that predisposes me toward that particular belief.

    Perhaps I like the certainty of it, which would make me not unlike many “believers.” I’m also, in Jungian terms, more of a thinking-values person than a feeling-values person, which would mean that I’m more comfortable envisioning the universe operating on strictly material principles, without need for human (or godly) values. And I’m sure there’s an element of embarrassment about the gushing sentiment that sometimes goes along with belief in the afterlife. Add a dash of contrarianism (though not a lot) and maybe I’ve explained my inclination.

    Anybody else want to have a go?

  • Hank Scorpio

    Although I hate new agey, crunchy granola nonsense, and am pretty much an agnostic in that I have not the first clue about what goes on after death, I do lean towards the afterlife being a distinct possibility because of what I can only call an out of body experience when I was a young kid.

    Nothing life threatening, but I knocked myself out doing stupid stunts on my bike, and I distinctly recall to this day looking down at my body, with my sister and her friend trying to wake me up and them freaking out a little bit. This isn’t a hazy recollection, I remember it vividly to this day, and when it was happening I can recall feeling more aware of what was happening than I’d be in a state of “normal” consciousness.

    Now granted, this isn’t anything deeply profound like a tunnel of light or seeing Jesus/Buddha/Vishnu, but it has definitely affected me ever since.

  • Is there an afterlife or is death the end?


  • mark

    Death is what gives life meaning.

    What’s the point of living forever?

  • nick g.

    I find that my political beliefs and my religious beliefs dovetail and complement each other. I am an esoteric Christian who believes in Karma; therefore I am a libertarian, since I believe that life is fair, in the long run. Thus I am not inclined to have a central government ‘ration’ things to make them ‘fair’, but will work for what I want.
    What would an immortal being do? Just what we’re doing now, playing in the mud! (Life is the soul’s version of a video game.) Our karmic scorecard is quite muddled by now, but we’re all determined to improve our scores!
    Why do we come back? I saw this on a desk-top calendar, so it must be true- “Sex is one of the nine reasons for reincarnation; the other eight are unimportant.”

  • Maybe.

    Signed: Agnostic

  • CFM

    If there’s an afterlife afterdeath, we need to think it through. even if only as an afterthought. Possibilities:

    1. Christian Heaven. Everybody lives in peace and harmony. No want, no need, no pain, no sin (wha – NO SIN? For like, a gazillion years?) Screw that.

    2. Moslem Paradise. Fresh spring water, pomegranates, shade, and (if you blow yourself up) 72 virgins. Wait . . . Virgins generally have no clue what they’re doing – and less idea how to enjoy it. Sort of like rubber blow-up dolls with bloodbags. And what do the non-flammable amongst us get? Camels? Pass.

    3. Re-Incarnation. Luck-of-the-draw. Sure, you might get to come back as Hugh Heffner in the 1960’s, but there are far more dung-beetle (or worse, Hillary) cards in that deck. Pretty shaky, that.

    4. “Progressive” Christian Heaven. No Smoking. No Trans-Fats. No Alchohol (drugs are OK). Your own private Social Attendant to choose your friends for you. And no money. Listen, if the “it’s a Small World” song drives you nuts, just imagine hearing Rosie O’Donnell and Jimmah Carter singing Kumbaya for a few millennia. (Shudder).

    5. Environmentalist Nature Paradise. Where all the virtuous greenies live in mud huts, in an environment free of industrial products. No toothpaste, soap or deodorant. Underfed, mousy looking women with hairy armpits and (unlaundered) Birkenstocks. No motorcycles. I’m outta here . . .

    6. Dawn of the Dead. Smells bad. Nope.

    And for the completely unsupportable chance that any of the above exist, you have to give up all the most fun stuff in this life (or choose #6).

    I don’t care if there’s Afterlife. These are the Good Old Days.

  • CFM

    BTW, does anybody know what Steevo said?

  • tranio

    When the peasants lived nasty short brutish lives serving the clergy and other upper classes, the idea of life after death kept them somewhat happy and ignorant. That’s all changed now which is why religion is dying in the West.

  • It seems to me that of the four possible outcomes of either atheism/theism and god exists/god does not exist (which is really what we’re talking about, I suppose) that there is a strong basis for the argument that life as a principled atheist makes the most sense.

    I wrote about the reasons here.

  • Jesus promised us resurrection. I’m pointing this out because it is different from current ideas about heaven. To me, it seems our picture of heaven has more to do with the platonic world of ideal forms than anything Jewish.
    Resurrection should seem more possible now than ever considering the medical advances we’ve had in the last century. I don’t pretend to know the process, but I believe the promise will be kept.

  • Gib

    Tedd McHenry, you ask “What do you think it is about you, personally, that inclines you toward one belief or the other?”.

    Personally, it’s my desire to know as much as I can about how things really work, and being able to look logically at the evidence that makes me believe there’s no afterlife.

  • When the computer shuts down, the program quits running.

    You want me to believe that the program uploads itself into non-physical hardware, you’d better show me some darn good evidence, and not a bunch of wishful thinking.

  • nick g.

    For your comment to be valid, you would need to look at all the evidence. Who can ever claim to have done that? Do you go around the world, investigating every case of near-death experience for the one that might be physically inexplicable? How exhaustively do you look, so we can judge how good (or bad) your claim is?

  • Brendan Halfweeg

    There certainly is an afterlife, for people who are still living after you’ve gone. If it comforts them to believe you’re in heaven, then good for them. I’d rather be comforted by the knowledge that I am remembered of fondly by people I knew.

  • What’s the point of living forever?

    I’ll try it and tell you. What’s the point of dying?

  • lupin

    It’s nice to see that even libertarians indulge in fluffy new age woo-woo. Well ‘nice’ is the wrong word. “A bit sad” would be more like it.

  • spruance

    We’ll see for sure.

  • Snide

    “A bit sad” would be more like it.

    There is a Pearson coefficient of 1 between people who use the expression ‘sad’ like that and twits who could not string together a coherent argument to save their lives.

  • Gib

    Do you go around the world, investigating every case of near-death experience for the one that might be physically inexplicable?

    Nope, and you’re (partially) right. It’s possible that there is life after death, and that one of the near-death experiences that happen in the world proves it. But, the fact that it has eluded the investigation of all reputable investigators, that there is no known mechanism by which it could occur, and that the ones which are investigated show nothing supernatural, are very good reasons to hold the default position that it doesn’t exist.

    You’re only “partially” right, because something being inexplicable is not proof of anything. To prove life after death, the evidence has to be explicable, pointing to life after death.
    For instance, someone knowing what happened near their body while they were “dead”, is strange, but doesn’t prove life after death.

  • Nick M

    Sometime commentator on this blog Bryan Appleyard has a book out at the mo called “How to live forever or die trying”. I have no idea what it’s about but the title sums up exactly how I feel.

    I have to say that I enjoyed CFM’s fisking of the alternatives. Good work fella! Yes, I have frequently wondered quite what the attraction of 72 virgins is. So, from this moment forth I propose a religion which offers it’s martyrs 72 grand-a-night hookers. I feel I have scooped Muhammed here. Please form an ordely queue and write me a cheque for £1000 ($2000, whatever in Euros) and no, I won’t take an IOU. Swiss Francs, Yen, absolutely sir, let’s just look at the prevailing exchange rate shall we?

    Nickology – do what the fuck you like but just give me a grand. Salvation is guarranteed*

    Seriously though, I don’t intend on dying anytime soon. But if I do I’ll keep y’all posted on events in the afterlife and you’ll know it’s me because it’ll appear on Samizdata in a kinda ghostly font despite the best efforts of Perry et al’s CSS. Yup, even if I’m a member of Jimmy Carter’s spectral choir, I’ll tell ya all about it. Kumbaya my Lord, Kumbaya!

    Of course I could always end up in Satan’s jazz club, groping Nina Simone. I have committed many sins** including (I hope) some fairly original ones.

    WRT Muhammed’s “paradise”… well, isn’t the whole point of being with a virgin the intimacy and isn’t that kinda nixed by having to do it another 71 times? And then what?

    *Not a guarantee.

    **Well, I’ve broken the vast majority of the ten commandments. I haven’t killed yet but I’m working on that and moving to a place with one of those little Honda wood-chippers and considering the fact it’s next to a deer-park I suspect a crossbow really ought to be on the shopping list. I have never made graven images because frankly that seems like way too much effort. Having said that, I excel at sloth.

  • blank

    Ham wrote: “So, blank, do you pray to every single god, just to be safe? ;-)”

    No way! I only pray to Ra, Isis and sometimes Horus. But I always thought God just wanted us to have fun down here, and She has a tremendous sense of humour… getting us to speculate on the afterlife is great fun.

  • For your comment to be valid, you would need to look at all the evidence. Who can ever claim to have done that? Do you go around the world, investigating every case of near-death experience for the one that might be physically inexplicable?

    Has anyone gone around the world investigating every claimed sighting of flying saucers, unicorns, or Santa Claus? How much work does one need to put into this before acknowledging that the probability of any of those things being real is too low to be worth bothering with?

    The burden of proof is on the party making the extraordinary claim, not on the party rejecting it. It’s the person who believes in unicorns or an afterlife who needs to provide proof of his position.

  • What’s the point of living forever?

    The same as the point of living at all. Fun. New experiences. New ideas. Seeing new things.

    Most religions’ concepts of an afterlife are trite, static, and boring, but living forever in the constantly-developing real world would not be like that.

  • John McVey

    There is no afterlife. The idea of a consciousness independent of existence, that there could initially have been a consciousness aware of nothing but itself that then created reality (to alleviate the boredom??), and that there would subsequently later on be a collection of such consciousnesses having some sort of celestial non-corporeal love-in, is totally absurd. Consciousness exists because it was hit upon by certain life-forms as a useful tool of survival in the context of the rest of their bodily needs. When the life goes the body disintegrates, taking consciousness along with it.


  • Rory Hodgson

    Life after death? That’s only possible if you believe in the soul – the existence of some form of consciousness that can live independently of the material universe. The whole idea is ridiculous.

    Life is a process of actions. Death is the end of all actions. How can one be both dead, and still able to perform actions?

  • An afterlife does not necessarily require a deity, just a process, so you could have some sort of afterlife without a deity. The idea of reincarnation, for instance could work fine like that.

    Is there an afterlife? I am not aware of any definitive (or even convincing) proof either way. I await the result with interest – though if there were no afterlife you would necessarily cease to exist just before you found out, how frustrating 😉

    On the question of a deity? Well if a company were to retail a product like ‘Life’ TM, then they would get sued.

    There is no instruction manual. Or if you take the various ‘good’ books, the instructions were poorly written in several foreign languages, are fragmentary, contradictory and badly translated. Ah! Par for the course then 😉

    Also – If the product is defective you are stuck with it…

  • J

    Consciousness exists because it was hit upon by certain life-forms as a useful tool of survival in the context of the rest of their bodily needs. When the life goes the body disintegrates, taking consciousness along with it.

    That is a minority opinion I think, certainly from what I dimly remember of my degree. Consciousness does not have much in common with physical things. Consciousness has no mass. It can cease (e.g. when you are hit on the head) and spring back into existence later. Physical entities can’t do that.

    It’s not clear that anyone is conscious except for yourself. Other people behave like you, and your behaviour is linked to your consciousness, sure. But you can’t observe consciousness, which again makes it entirely unlike every physical thing in the universe (except black holes).

    Some cases of mental disorder (often resulting from physical brain damage) result in what appear to be two independent consciousnesses within the same brain. While this does indicate a link between body and mind, it also suggests the link can be very complex.

    The science and philosophy and mind and consciousness is fascinating. I’d recommend people not to write it off as just “wot your brain is, durrrrr”

  • There is nothing that we could call ‘life’ after death, but there is existence of a sort.
    Energy cannot be created or destroyed, matter is a form of energy. The atoms that make up this fragile biological form were born in the hearts of stars, and one day they will return there. we are part of the universe and will remain so in one form or another until it ends, after that, who knows?

  • Sam Duncan

    Hope so. Suspect not. Don’t know.

    Although.. veryretired, I’ve always felt this is what is really meant by “spiritual”, rather than some kind of pseudo-physical other world. Best comment in this thread, and the one that I assume inspired it.

  • Tedd McHenry


    Personally, it’s my desire to know as much as I can about how things really work, and being able to look logically at the evidence that makes me believe there’s no afterlife.

    I’m not having a go at you but, speaking as one atheist to another, I suspect that sort of self-flattering attitude is one of the things that turns the un-committed away from atheism.

    I also don’t think the defense of atheism depends on denying the existence of rational uncertainty.

  • cj

    I believe in an “after life” in the sense of (and I’m going to really mung this) the/whatever Thermodynamic principle/law/theory that energy is changed, not lost. So, I think whatever “animates” us (i.e. our “spirit”) goes back to the Great Universe/Universal energy/creation source. But I *don’t* think that “energy” is going to continue as “me/myself/I, Joe Bob from Paducah” or with any sentinent knowledge of self/relationships/being-that-I-was-on-Earth.

    I think the Christian resurrection is a metaphor for how your life *on earth* can change if you follow the philosophy that Jesus taught. (You die to your current way of life and are “reborn” as a follower of Christ.) I think this way of thinking is shared by many religious philosophies.

    And, surprisingly enough, I wasn’t reared as a child of new age, California, hippie parents. I’m a current-Lutheran via Episcopalian, Irish, liberal, Catholic-reared conservative mother of three residing in Kansas. Whatever that’s worth.

  • Midwesterner

    These two threads have me sympathizing with the poor dyslexic agnostic who wasted his entire life wondering if there really was a Dog.

  • James_C

    I believe in an “after life” in the sense of (and I’m going to really mung this) the/whatever Thermodynamic principle/law/theory that energy is changed, not lost. So, I think whatever “animates” us (i.e. our “spirit”) goes back to the Great Universe/Universal energy/creation source. But I *don’t* think that “energy” is going to continue as “me/myself/I, Joe Bob from Paducah” or with any sentinent knowledge of self/relationships/being-that-I-was-on-Earth.

    That “energy” you speak of goes into the bacteria, worms and bugs that feast on the corpse. If it goes out into the Universe, it’s through them.

    When someone says ‘but the energy has to go somewhere’ ask them where the energy goes when you switch off a flashlight.

    Freshly dead human bodies are just one big Duracell battery (but only some have the copper top, of course).

  • Lupin-of course everybody here is a ‘Libertarian’.
    They started this site specifically so Libertarian people could speak to Libertarian people.
    That puts everybody in their place, right?
    What a wonderful looniverse you’ve created.

  • John McVey

    J: Whether or not it is minority opinion is irrelevant. Ask most Samizdatistas about the push for Consensus on Global Warming, for instance. What is, is, irrespective of who thinks what.

    In relation to the rest, my first inclination was to say “Nah, I don’t like that bait,” but I got a bit hungry so I’ve had a chomp. Hopefully I’ll be deft enough to nibble the free-moving bits without getting the hook in my mouth. I’m still tempted just to delete this whole thing, but then again Thaddeus *did* ask it to be a discussion point.

    You’re oversimplifying what I actually believe based on a single threadbare line. I know very well consciousness is an extremely fascinating and complex system – but it is nevertheless an attribute of physical systems. It is an integrated pattern, embodied by physical means, running a process of analysing data from sources such as the sensory and memory systems. That consciousness, as opposed to the brain, is not of itself a physical something, is beside the point. It is a real existent, and exists as an expression of something materially real. Refugee’s computer program analogy hits the spot in that regard – and computer programs have no mass either. You can cite mental problems until the cows come home, but not a single one stops consciousness from being an expression of an extremely complex state of matter organised into a coherent pattern (even if occasionally internally conflicted at times). When the materials that bear that pattern start losing their coherence, the pattern is perforce destroyed. QED, no afterlife (let’s not get into idle speculation about trekkie-style energy fields being transported to repository moons etc, mkay?)

    Moreover, who is ‘writing off’ the brain as a ‘merely’?? I object to that denigration of the brain and the insinuation that the material world & contents are inherently low and crass. I stated a fact – that you or others may find it disheartening is not grounds for thinking that I or anyone else automatically shares your worldview.

    I am also unimpressed with that universe-revolves-around-me mentality you seem to be displaying, which asserts that the attribution of consciousness to others cannot be taken as certain. To sustain that whole thing you’d have to degenerate into a version of that ridiculous argument the fruitcake 6000-yo-Earth mob has about the Creator setting observable facts up to trick the unbelievers. Given the overwhelming evidence, the onus is on YOU to justify why on earth I should take your doubts seriously, and I have no tolerance for the arbitrariness of militant skepticism. I thought your post was bait for this reason, that I didn’t think someone clearly intelligent and evidently pro-science could take such an idea as the non-certainty of others’ consciousness even remotely seriously. Solipsism is not a pretty sight (except in HHGTTG scripts, in which it is mildly amusing).

    *cleans bait fragments from between his teeth*


  • Freeman

    Is there a before-life?

    For those who claim to have a perpetual soul, what was it up to before you owned it?

  • Anon

    JJM: “consciousness …. is nevertheless an attribute of physical systems.” Also: “consciousness, as opposed to the brain, is not of itself a physical something, is beside the point.”

    First quote: How do you know? Actually, you don’t – you just think you do because you have no other frame of reference.

    Second: It isn’t beside the point at all. I think you are just trying to be dismissive to avoid considering an answer that don’t support your beliefs.

    This is not to attack JJM, but to say we are thinking about the unthinkable, which is pretty tough.

  • John McVey

    Freeman: the more sophisticated religions do have an answer to that: Pre-existence.

    Anon: no thanks, I’m on a diet.


  • nick g.

    According to some philosophies, we are souls, who are immortal beings who play with matter as a way of passing time. Another round of Life, anyone? I bet I can beat you this time!